Category Archives: Objects

Notes on a “Dan” figure from the Myron Kunin collection

Dan Kran figure Myron Kunin Sothebys Barbier Mueler 462x1024 Notes on a Dan figure from the Myron Kunin collection

Kran figure (Liberia). Height: 52,7 cm. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The beautiful female figure shown above was part of the Myron Kunin collection and listed in the catalogue as Dan. A client asked me to do some research on it before considering to bid on it and I hereby gladly share my findings. Although Sotheby’s mentioned none, I was able to discover a handful other figures from this workshop. Distinctive for this style is the treatment of the face and the particular position of the hands: one horizontal, one vertical – unique for this type of sculpture. Only the height of the neck, shape of the breasts and scarifications on the torso differ among the different sculptures from this workshop. Similar details, such as the rendering of the toes, among all figures, could indicate that they in fact were all the work of one single artist, but without handling the statues, it’s of course not possible to come to a definitive conclusion.

Kran figure Liberia Peabody Leipzig Notes on a Dan figure from the Myron Kunin collection

My research became interesting when I discovered the above figure in the collection of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. The museum’s archives hold an old picture of this female figure, taken by Frederick P. Orchard (based in Liberia) and indicating a precise geographic origin for that figure: Towai in the Kwida Section of Liberia, on the border with Ivory Coast. I was able to locate this place on a map in Schwab & Harley’s Tribes of the Liberian Hinterland (which I discussed recently here) – Towai is indicated in red on the map below. Comparing it with the map from the same book concerning the different peoples living in the area, it became clear this was not Dan, but Kran territory!

map Tribes from the Liberian Hinterland 1 Notes on a Dan figure from the Myron Kunin collection

map Tribes from the Liberian Hinterland 2 Notes on a Dan figure from the Myron Kunin collection

The Peabody figure was also published in Tribes of the Liberian Hinterland (1947, fig. 71) with the note: “wooden figure by a Kran man”, so the Kran provenance for the figures of this workshop hereby got confirmed. The Dan (‘Ngere or Gio’ on the above map) do lived close by of course. It’s interesting to know that, among the Mano and Dan, the Kran had the reputation of being the best sculptors – so it’s not unlikely Dan patrons commissioned this talented Kran artist to make figures for them.

 Notes on a Dan figure from the Myron Kunin collection

A Kran couple. Image courtesy of Boris Kegel-Konietzko, Hamburg.

Field-photo of the day: an ‘okoroshi’ masquerade among the Usuama Igbo

okoroshi isuama igbo orlu jones Field photo of the day: an okoroshi masquerade among the Usuama Igbo

An okoroshi masquerade featuring the character of Onyejuwe. Photo by G. I. Jones, 1930s, at Eziama Orlu (Isuama Igbo).

One of the sleepers in the Kunin sale was the below Igbo mask which was much better than its estimate suggested. After doing some research on it I found much more information than was available in the sale catalogue and traced down the masks’ possible village of origin. G.I. Jones photographed a very similar mask among the Isuama Igbo in Eziama Orlu in the 1930s. Comparing the mouth, ears, nose, eyes and eyebrows with the mask under discussion here, it’s very probable this mask was made by the same sculptor.

Igbo mask Myron Kunin Sothebys Orlu style 472x1024 Field photo of the day: an okoroshi masquerade among the Usuama Igbo

Igbo mask. Height: 49,3 cm. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Another mask from this artist is in the collection of Yale University. G.I. Jones wrote that the carver of these masks was a professional canoe maker who spent a large part of his time working with his gang in the forests of the northern Delta. (Jones (G.I.), “The art of Eastern Nigeria”, Cambridge, 1984: p. 123).

Igbo okoroshi Yale University Benenson 753x1024 Field photo of the day: an okoroshi masquerade among the Usuama Igbo

Igbo mask. Height: 42,6 cm. Image courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, USA (2006.51.515).

Okoroshi was a six week Igbo masking season during which water spirits bless the growing crops during the height of the rainy season. White-faced masks generally embodied benign female characters who dance prettily in open arenas for large crowds. They were conceptually opposed to dark masked male characters, often with ugly faces.

There’s another field-photo of this mask during the same performance.

okoroshi isuama igbo orlu jones1 Field photo of the day: an okoroshi masquerade among the Usuama Igbo

An okoroshi masquerade depicting a close up of two beautiful characters. The one on the right is called Onyejuwe.The character on the left is wearing a white face mask consisting of an oval face with a high forehead with black painted head and a superstructure of two pointed horns and a carved white faced head in the centre; the face of the mask is white with black lines down the centre of the forehead, chin and black diagonal markings on the cheeks. The costume consists of layers of plaid cloth; two cloths are hanging from the wooden headdress.The character on the right, known as Onyejuwe, is wearing a white face mask with an elaborate headdress consisting of two pointed and arched horns emanating from the sides and in the middle are three carved faces painted white. The face of the mask is painted white with black incised coiffure a the top, black lines in the centre of the forehead and on both cheeks; slit eyes, nose and open mouth exaggerated mouth with white teeth. The masquerader is wearing covered in cloth. Photo by G. I. Jones, 1930s, at Eziama Orlu.

Eziama Orlu is located at number (28) – in Usuama Igbo territory – on the map below.

Igbo map G.I. Jones Field photo of the day: an okoroshi masquerade among the Usuama Igbo

Map from Jones (Gwilym Iwan), “The art of Eastern Nigeria”, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

The Kunin mask most likely represented the same Okoroshi character – called nwanyure (‘proud woman’) – as featured on the field-photo below. Note the very similar iconography.

 Field photo of the day: an okoroshi masquerade among the Usuama Igbo

An Okorosie or Okoroshi masquerade with a ‘beautiful’ female charater. The masquerader is wearing a wooden white face mask that is oval in shape with a superstructure of another carved head with plaits on top. The white face is accentuated with balck markings and with two diagonal lines on the cheeks. The masquerader is draped in several cloths and is holding a clapper in one hand. Photo by G. I. Jones, 1930s, at Eziama Orlu (Isuama Igbo).


Notes on an Igbo headdress from the Myron Kunin Collection

Igbo IbibioEket headdress Myron Kunin collection ogbom 436x1024 Notes on an Igbo headdress from the Myron Kunin Collection

Height: 76,8 cm. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The above headdress, lot 57 in the Kunin sale at Sotheby’s New York was listed as Eket in the sale catalogue. Since slightly similar figural crest masks such as this one were illustrated by Francois Neyt in L’art Eket (1979) and other publications, headdresses such as the one under discussion here, have been incorrectly attributed to the this group. The treatment of the face as a curving plane with sharp edges and the disproportionate emphasis on the spherical head indeed are very reminiscent to the well-known Eket stye (compare to the example illustrated at the end of this article).

In reality these headdresses originate from the southern Igbo. G.I. Jones and K.C. Murray visited the Olokoro (an Igbo group) near Umuahia in the late 1930s. Jones photographed a very similar headdress (illustrated below), while Murray collected several examples. Jack S. Harris in 1939 also collected two very similar headdresses near Umuahia (illustrated below); these were said to have been carved by an Ibibio sculptor.

Igbo map G.I. Jones Notes on an Igbo headdress from the Myron Kunin Collection

Map from Jones (Gwilym Iwan), “The art of Eastern Nigeria”, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

A number of ogbom headresses were thus commissioned by Igbo from Ibibio carvers, and others were locally made. According to Herbert Cole it’s unlikely that all known ogbom headdresses were carved by Ibibio (or Eket), so possibly local artists copied the style. There were old trade routes between the two areas via the Kwa Ibo River. Furthermore, the Umuahia area was a marginal area where Igbo, Ibibio, Cross River and Ijo peoples and cultures intermingled, with the Igbo predominating. From the days of the slave trade onward it was also an important distribution center for trade. The principal market was at Bende, where trade routes from the Niger via the Northern Igbo, and the Benue via the Idoma and North-Eastern Igbo converged, and where the slaves could be routed southwards to the coast. At the same time the imports received from the south were traded northwards along the same routes.

Igbo ogbom headdress Jack Harris Umuhia 1939 783x1024 Notes on an Igbo headdress from the Myron Kunin Collection

The characteristic feature of this style lay in the treatment of the lower part of the face, we notice an exaggerated subnasal prognathism. The lips and chin project well beyond the nose and the upper part of the face. In support of this distortion the lips are over-large in size and prominence, particularly in relation with the chin, which recedes beneath them; the cheek- bones and the angle of the jaw disappeared, as did the line of the jaw, which was displaced by a line which ran from the corner of the lips to the outer edge of the brows. The eyes are reduced to slits between straight, insignificant narrow lids hidden beneath the overhanging brows. This exaggeration of the forward projection of the lips can also be found in some Ibibio Anang figures, but not to the same extreme. Lastly, most ogbom carry the local ‘tribal’ marks, namely keloids grouped into small rectangules or ovoids, one on each temple and one between the eyes. In some case they were represented vertically, in others horizontally.

G.I. Jones OhuhuOlokoro Igbo man sitting near the household and holding an Ugbom headdress Notes on an Igbo headdress from the Myron Kunin Collection

A Ohuhu/Olokoro-Igbo man sitting near the household and holding an ogbom headdress. The ogbom headdress depicts a seated female figure carrying a round platter with a head placed on top. The main figure is carved of wood and she is sitting on a wooden stool. The face of the figure is angular and consists of a rounded head but with sharp angles around the jaw line. The figure has a high forehead with keloid markings in the center and at the sides of the temples; slit eyes, nose, and protruding mouth. The upper torso consists of large breasts, arms extended upward, rounded at the elbow and coiled rings around her wrists. She is holding a round tray with a carved head; the head consists of a rounded stylized face with slit eyes, keloid markings in the center of the forehead and to the sides, mouth and thick neck. She is seated with rings around her ankles. A basketwork tubular frame is at the base of the sculpture. Photo by G.I. Jones, 1930s.

These full-figure headdresses are worn in ogbom dances – these were known among the following Igbo groups: Ibeku, Olokoro, Oboro, Ngwa, and Ozu-Item. While Ibibio style features are present, there is no reason to ascribe the origin of the ogbom cult and art to these neighbors.

Versions of this dance employing carved headdresses seem to have been moribund in the early 1940s. In Olokoro, in 1966, Cole was told that ogbom had last been performed as a masquerade in 1952, but that it continued to be celebrated as a dance (without the headdress). Other sources tell that men still wore the headdresses by the 1930s, but their identity was not concealed (thus they were not supernatural beings), and these carvings had not been made since the nineteenth century.

Ogbom displays honored ala (earth) and called attention to her role in human and agricultural fertility and increase. In some areas it was a harvest celebration. During part of the performance women entered the arena to dance and sing around the ogbom carrier. Connections with female productivity and nurture are emphasized in the carvings themselves, which are overwhelming female, nearly always depicted with large full breasts.

Many of the known ogbom carvings are young females seated on stools holding a disc-like plate above their heads with a human head. These heads would seem to be trophies of war. Since this Igbo area was once known for headhunting, this iconography would appear to refer (at least indirectly) to the role of the heads of slain enemies in bringing power and increase to the receiving community.

Murray describes an elaborate, colorful costume for ogbom carriers. Around the cylindrical base basketwork was woven, and this enabled the carving to be lashed to the dancer’s head. ‘Through a hole in the base of the carving a stick is fitted so as to protrude horizontally at front and back. On the front a conical basket about four feet long is fixed, and at the back an arrangement of cane and raffia shaped like a wheel’. All of that was covered with fine cloths and parrot feathers, and there was a tail-like projection at the dancer’s rear. Murray is equivocal about the wearer’s costume and extent of disguise. At one point he says, ‘The face and body of the dancer are completely covered with a special white-colored native-woven cloth with reaches down to his feet’, and later he indicates that the identity of the carrier was not concealed. In any case, ogbom performers danced in an open area before a shed specially erected for musicians, who used to types of membrane drums plus nine small ‘bowl drums’ of graded size. Murray tells us that ‘women moved about joyfully in compact bodies while parties of men moved forwards and backwards in front of the shed. The dancers wearing the costumes entered singly in a scene of great excitement and danced before the shed and, without touching their cloths, twirled their cloth around their tails merely by their dancing’.

Eket headdress Yale University Benenson 730x1024 Notes on an Igbo headdress from the Myron Kunin Collection

Eket headdress. Height: 58,5 cm. Image courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery (2006.51.393).

Sleeper of the month: an ivory Lega mask (D.R. Congo)

ivory lega mask sleeper bruno claessens blog 757x1024 Sleeper of the month: an ivory Lega mask (D.R. Congo)

The above Lega mask – 15,3 cm high – was sold at auction in The Netherlands earlier this month. The grandfather of the Belgian owner had collected it between 1906 and 1909 while working as a cartographer in the then Congo Freestate. With an estimate of only € 15,000-20,000 this little mask obviously attracted a lot of attention. It is a very rare opportunity to find a previously unknown ivory Lega mask of this quality, so I was convinced it wouldn’t stay unnoticed. Well, this little treasure didn’t sleep and in the end sold for € 300,000 (without costs) – probably the same result if it would have been sold at one of the bigger auction houses. After having spent fifteen minutes with it, I can say it’s totally worth it.

PS the title of ‘Sleeper’ in this case is thus totally incorrect icon smile Sleeper of the month: an ivory Lega mask (D.R. Congo)


Object of the day: a Benin plaque by the Master of the Leopard Hunt

 Object of the day: a Benin plaque by the Master of the Leopard Hunt

Image courtesy of the Ethnologisches Museum (SMPK), Berlin, Germany (III.C.8206).

I’m currently obsessed with Benin plaques, so I thought I share one of my favorites. The above example, in the collection of Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum, was attributed by William Fagg to the ‘Master of the Leopard Hunt’. It’s one of the seven known brass plaques which appear to be by this artist, certainly one of the greatest of Benin bronze casters. His works are free from the rather unimaginative rigidity of the great majority of the plaques, and this fragmentary scene of a Bini shooting at an ibis in the tree is often considered the most beautiful plaque of all. While most of the known Benin plaques show recurrent scenes of ritual, the work of the Master of the Leopard Hunt always depicts unique events, represented with a free sense of composition.

a Benin plaque by the Master of the Leopard Hunt Nigeria 1024x1011 Object of the day: a Benin plaque by the Master of the Leopard Hunt

This ‘master’ got his name thanks to another plaque in the same museum, illustrated below, featuring a hunting party and two leopards – which is however less three dimensional. The Oba alone was allowed to slay leopards during his ritual duties. Leopards would be captured as cubs to be raised within the palace and so tamed in preparation for their immolation by the king.

 Object of the day: a Benin plaque by the Master of the Leopard Hunt

Image courtesy of the Ethnologisches Museum (SMPK), Berlin, Germany (III.C.27485).

A third plaque from this artist show two Edo men harvesting fluted pumpkins – extremely unusual in subject matter. The two men’s dress is not that of farmers; their pot-like helmets mark palace officials. This complex plaque likely records a harvest for sacrificial reasons. In Benin this pumpkin type is equated with good things – success, unity and longevity – and is a standard sacrifice to two deities, the high god Osanobua and his son Olokun, god of the sea and wealth. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has a rare container in its collection in the shape of such a gourd.

 Object of the day: a Benin plaque by the Master of the Leopard Hunt

Image courtesy of the Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde, Dresden, Germany.

One element that these three plaques have in common is that they all depict actions: an archer aiming at a bird in a tree or palace officials catching leopards or garnering fruits. Together with the three-quarter view and the reference to an environment, this feature is alien to most African art and probably the result of a highly creative mind who dared to experiment with the standard prototype of the human-centered plaques.



Object of the day: Nkutshu currency (D.R. Congo)

Nkutshu konga konga Basongo Meno boloko Bruno Claessens Collection 961x1024 Object of the day: Nkutshu currency (D.R. Congo)

These enigmatic U-shaped pieces of copper currency were made by Nkutshu blacksmiths for their monetary system. They also traded them with their neighbors, the Basongo Meno, a group of Mongo origin. The Nkutshu called them Konga or Kunga; among the Basongo Meno they were known as Boloko or Okano. The aforementioned considered them important objects and used them both in dowry payments and in the purchase of slaves and big animals. Alfred Mahieu specified their value in Numismatique du Congo 1485-1924 (Brussels, 1924):

  • 1 boloko bought a billy goat,
  • 2 boloko bought one goat or a man slave,
  • 3 boloko were worth a female slave,
  • 10 boloko constituted a normal dowry for a wife.

I found mine on Ebay for much less. The above information is quoted from Roberto Ballarini’s encyclopedic book on African currency, The Perfect Form; with its 415 pages a must have if you’re interested in the subject. These currencies were very rare in the West until the eighties; but with patience and a little luck you can find them at a double-digit price these days – a good example that even on a budget it’s possible to collect authentic African art. Dating these is impossible, but they could be much older than we think – the copper’s surface is amazing up close. Their simple form makes these objects very decorative. Most often they are placed on a base, with the open side upwards. But placing them upside down – which is only possible if the circles on the end are flat and the currency itself isn’t warped – presents a whole new dimension to the objects.

Objects of the day: two Keaka headdresses from Cameroon

 Objects of the day: two Keaka headdresses from Cameroon

Keaka headdress. Image courtesy of the Linden Museum Stuttgart. Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde, Stuttgart, Germany (#45.455). Height: 22 cm.

As discussed last week here a lot of heavily encrusted figures from the southern Nigeria-Cameroon border are mistakenly identified as Keaka. I illustrated my text with such a Kaka figure, but wanted to take this opportunity to show two headdresses from the Keaka (or Eastern Ejagham) to give an idea of the art they in their turn created. Just as their neighbors the Banyang and Anyang, the Keaka adopted several mask types from the Boki, most notoriously the headdresses (sometimes called crest masks) covered with antelope skin and with a basketwork cap as the base for the dancer’s head. The two examples illustrated here belong to Stuttgart’s Linden Museum in Germany. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any additional information about them but they can most likely be dated as late 19th century (as many similar examples in German museums). Unless the exact provenance is given, It’s not always easy to determine the precise origin of these headdresses, that’s why we often find them listed as Ekoi (the common language in this area). Keaka examples generally distinct themselves by their naturalism (notable in the oval eyes, nose and mouth).

 Objects of the day: two Keaka headdresses from Cameroon

Keaka headdress. Image courtesy of the Linden Museum Stuttgart. Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde, Stuttgart, Germany (#33.286). Height: 29 cm.

Keaka map Blier Cross River Ejagham Objects of the day: two Keaka headdresses from Cameroon

Map from Blier (S.P.), Africa ́s Cross River. Art of the Nigerian-Cameroon Border Redefined, L. Kahan Gallery, New York, 1980: p. 3.

Kaka or Keaka ? a lingering confusion


 Kaka or Keaka ?  a lingering confusion

Kaka figure. Height: 42 cm. Photo by Volker Thomas & Thomas Other, Nürnberg. Image courtesy of the Africarium Collection.

There’s a lot of confusion about these two groups; Kaka works of art (schematically rendered anthropomorphic figures with an encrusted surface) are often mistakenly listed as Keaka. Since they are rather popular in today’s market, I decided to spend some time on the subject.

In 1994, Tribal Arts Magazine published a clarifying article from Pierre Harter (No. 3, September 1994: pp. 45-48), but unfortunately misattributions are still omnipresent. While scholarship points to Kaka, one German dealer/scholar’s attribution to Keaka has been causing a lot of mistakes. Karl-Ferdinand Schaedler was one of the first to publish these figures; he produced a number of books labeling these works of art Keaka. On a visit to Munich, US dealer Jim Willis questioned him and he admitted, “Jim, I just got it wrong. But once it was in my book, most people just don’t want to say Kaka”, scatological associations presumably diminishing respect and thus value (personal communication with Frederick Lamp, 9/6/10). But Schaedler surely wasn’t the only culprit, two other experts (Barry Hecht in Sieber (Roy) & Hecht (Barry), Eastern Nigerian Art from the Toby and Barry Hecht Collection, African Arts, Vol.35, No. 1, Spring 2002: pp. 56-77 and Jill Salmons in Northern (T.), Expressions of Cameroon Art: The Franklin Collection, Los Angeles, 1986: pp. 72-75) proposed a Keaka origin when describing Kaka figures. However, the Keaka and the Kaka are entirely different ethnic groups, though living not far from each other – adding up to the confusion.

The Keaka (or Eastern Ejagham) are one of the numerous Ejagham groups on the southern Nigeria-Cameroon border. They live around Ossing, near the left bank of the Cross River, with a total population number of 8000 people spread among 28 villages. The Keaka are neighboring the Banyang and to the west of the Bangwa. The Keaka, Anyang and Banyang adopted several mask types from the Ekoi groups. They consist of face masks, helmet masks, or whole figures carved in wood and covered with tanned animal skins, with a basketwork cap as the base for the dancer’s head.

Keaka map Ruel Leopards and Leaders not Kaka Kaka or Keaka ?  a lingering confusion

(source: Ruel (M.), Leopards and Leaders, London, 1969: p. 3)

The Kaka (also known as Yamba) have nothing to do with the Keaka. ‘Kaka’ is the Fulani name the Germans gave to the Mfumte, Mbem, Mbaw (Ntem) and Ntong, a cluster of about 18000 peoples living in scattered settlements (ca. 18) just south of the Donga River, on the high plateau near the Cameroon-Nigeria border. They reside south of the Mambila but are more related to their southern Tikar neighbours, with whom they share certain customs. The art of the Kaka was deeply influenced by their neighbours in the Cameroon Grassfields. Their statues and masks, like those of the Bangwa of Cameroon, are often covered with a thick, grainy curst of soot.

Kaka map from Tishman collection not Keaka Kaka or Keaka ?  a lingering confusion

(source: Vogel (Susan M.) (ed.), For Spirits and Kings: African Art from the Paul and Ruth Tishman Collection, New York, 1981: p. 87)

Also on the origin of their specific patina, there are a lot of different opinions in the literature. Some authors ascribe it to generations of ritual offerings, while others state it is an accumulation of blood sacrifices and ashes. In the trade, the explanation I’ve heard the most is that these objects were hung up to the roof of houses, where the smoke of the central ever-burning fire in time accumulated on the object, generating the observed blackish ‘smoke patina’. Should someone have any additional information on this ‘crust of soot’, please do get in touch.

Object of the day: an early 19th century Vili drum (D.R. Congo)

Vili drum Julio Peabody Essex Museum Salem 352x1024 Object of the day: an early 19th century Vili drum (D.R. Congo)

Vili drum. Height: 100,3 cm. Image courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum (#E6754).

The above Vili drum was donated to the Peabody Essex Museum by Captain William T. Julio in 1843. Julio was the captain of a vessel from Salem and active in the slave trade. Drums of this kind are rather rare. All known examples were collected during the last quarter of the nineteenth century in Loango, a region at the mouth of the Congo river (here another example which the Metropolitan acquired in 1897). There is no certainty about the use and significance of these drums. According to some authors, they were a status symbol for the ruler of the Vili, the Ma-Loango.

This drum is supported by a European man seated on a stool. Possibly this is one of the earliest documented ‘colon’-figures in wood. The man is wearing a black jacket, white pants, black boots, a black, brimmed hat and a hoop earring in his left ear. Possibly it’s a portrait of its collector, made as a souvenir. The figure holds a cup in one hand and a (gin?) bottle in the other. His reddish lower eyelids and squinted eyes do suggest he has already emptied the bottle. I wonder what this says about how the Vili (more specific the carver of this drum) regarded their European visitors ?

Vili drum Julio Peabody Essex Museum Salem head 656x1024 Object of the day: an early 19th century Vili drum (D.R. Congo)

ps The British Museum has a very similar Vili drum in their collection – which they received from Henry Christy after his death in 1865. Christy himself had acquired it from the Haslar Hospital Museum – founded in 1827 and containing artefacts collected by men serving in the British Royal Navy. In my view this example misses the charisma of the above drum, the face being less expressionistic and more rigid in its rendering. It could be a copy or reinterpretation by another Vili carver, but that’s speculation.

Kongo Vili drum figure British Museum Haslar Christy 397x1024 Object of the day: an early 19th century Vili drum (D.R. Congo)

A Vili drum. Height: 103 cm. Image courtesy of the British Museum (#Af.4677).

Photo of the day: the Wunmonije heads

 Photo of the day: the Wunmonije heads

The Wunmonije heads at the British Museum in 1948. Published in Drewal (H.J.) & Schildkrout (E.), Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria, 2009: p. 4, fig. 2

In January 1938, two feet below the ground of the Wunmonije Compound in Ife, a cache of bronze heads was uncovered while a foundation for a house was being dug. It would become one of the most important chance finds in the history of African art. Unfortunately no photos of the excavations exist. Shown above are some of the heads unpacked at the British Museum, where the Ooni had sent them in 1948. It’s quite a remarkable scene to see such an important part of Nigeria’s art history placed arbitrary on that table.

The Wunmonije compound, then just behind the palace of the Ooni of Ife, formerly was located within the enclosing palace wall. While clearing away the topsoil the workmen had struck metal and further digging revealed a group of cast heads. Thirteen life-size heads and a half-lifesize half figure were unearthed. Soon after, the same site yielded additional finds of five more works: a life-size head, three smaller heads, and a torso. The identification and function of these heads remain uncertain. It remains a mystery why this cache was ever buried; possibly this hoard once formed part of a royal altar.

Most of the objects found in the Wunmonije Compound ended up in the National Museum of Ife, but a few pieces left Nigeria. One is now in the collections of the British Museum – the head far left on the above picture. It was purchased in Ife by Mr. Bates, then editor of the Nigerian Daily Times and was subsequently acquired by Sir (later Lord) Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery, acting on behalf of the National Art Collections Fund, which donated it to the British Museum in 1939. Two heads that were purchased by William Bascom (a research student from Northwestern University, Illiniois, who was based in Ife at the time) in 1938 were later returned to Nigeria as a gift in 1950 – a story documented in an article by Simon Ottenberg (Further Light on W.R. Bascom and the Ife Bronzes, in Africa, Vol. 64, No. 4, 1994: pp. 561-568).